It was a warm Halloween that year and the candy bags were mostly empty as the twins and their sister tromped into the house. Something was up if they hadn’t packed them full of sugary goodness.
“I thought you were doing the whole neighborhood?” I asked, stealing a Tootsie Roll from Val’s bag. Valerie hated Tootsie Rolls and I was due a mom tax if the kids were quitting early.
“Val’s the king now!” Ethan proclaimed as he struggled out of his superhero cowl.
It was mostly cheap candy as I rifled through it for glass or religious tracts. The kids hadn’t made it far. The good stuff was on the other side of town.
“What did you say?”
“It’s true,” Evan said. “Valerie is a king.”
I looked over to little Val sitting on the couch in her Ghostbusters costume. She had a rusty old sword slung over one shoulder — definitely not a prop I’d sent with the kids. She sat with it like it was the most natural thing in the world to carry a sword larger than herself.
Forget the candy. I knelt in front of Val, putting a hand on the gnarled blade. Some of the rust clung to my fingers. Definitely real.
“Where did you get this?”
Valerie whispered into my ear, just loud enough to hear over the twins flying around the living room. “The sword asked me to pull it. Its name is Arthur.”
She wrapped her arms around the hilt like it was a favorite stuffy.
“You pulled it out of where?” I repeated, trying to keep the frustration out of my voice.
“The stone in the big square downtown,” Val said. “The boys told me I wouldn’t be able to pull it out, because I’m so weak, but Arthur said that I could.”
“You pulled the sword out of the stone?” I asked. The sword in the stone was the only thing New Cornwall had going for it. Tourists loved taking pictures with it during potty breaks on the way to somewhere more exciting.
“See? Val’s our king now,” Evan said as he flew by.
“Why don’t you two go back out trick-or-treating,” I said, trying to give Val some space.
“I told you Valerie can’t be king, because she’s a giiiiirl,” Ethan said, shoving his brother.
“Girls can be kings if they want, dumbass,” Evan said.
“We don’t call our siblings dumbasses. And Valerie can’t be king because America doesn’t have kings. We have presidents.” I sighed as Val started to sniffle. The tears were coming. “The Fenways are giving out full-sized candy bars four streets over. Will you and your brother please go back outside for a while?”
The promise of sugar drove them back into the streets for a last bit of Halloween. Val and I each let out a breath as silence entered the house once more.
“You aren’t going to let me keep it, are you?” Valerie asked.
“How could you just steal a sword? You know better than to let your brothers goad you into these things.”
“I never get to keep anything. Not even now that I’m king.”
Val kept the sword pulled close. She’d always been small and quiet. She wore it like armor against her boisterous brothers. I wiped the rust from my fingers onto my pants while I searched for the words.
“Strange things happen on Halloween. We pretend to be someone else in our costumes, someone fun and exciting. But it’s important that we take the costumes off and start being who we were again the next morning.”
“I don’t mean to be a pretend king. Maybe I could learn?” Val suggested.
“A whole lot goes into learning to be a king. You have to learn all kinds of math and politics. And kings can’t cry when their brothers tease them.”
Val’s lip wobbled as she buried her face in the sword hilt. “Oh. Maybe I can’t be a king then. I’m too sens-i-tive.”
My heart broke. She was echoing words I thought I’d never said aloud near her.
“If it’s your sword now, then it will be your sword again. Just maybe when you’re ready for it,” I said.
Valerie clutched the rusted thing in her car seat as we pulled up to the square. “The sword says it doesn’t want to go back.”
“I know, Val. But we have to put it back where we found it,” I said. I didn’t add that we had to get it back before my 7-year-old daughter earned a reputation for property damage.
The stone didn’t look like it could hold the full length of Valerie’s sword. I wasn’t even sure the rock was real. It looked a lot like poured concrete dressed up a bit.
I held Val’s hand as we approached it, Valerie dragging the sword behind her like a security blanket.
The whole thing fit where it shouldn’t. As Valerie let go, the rock ground back into place, sealing the hole. I put my hand on the hilt and then pulled back. Better not to know.
“Goodbye, sword,” Val said, petting the rock that housed it. “This is just for a little while, okay? I’ll come for you once I know how to be a better king.”
As we climbed back into the car, I swallowed the scolding I had prepared. Those boys would convince their sister to break her neck one day.
“The library will have some books about kings,” I said instead. “Maybe some of them were sensitive, too.”
Dianne M. Williams is a speculative fiction writer who enjoys finding the humor and horror in everyday things. She lives in Lawrence, KS with a black cat, a white couch, and her laptop.